The puppet who clomps onto Aurora Theatre's stage in the first scene of The Soldier's Tale does, indeed, have the bedraggled, world-weary look of a soldier journeying home after World War I. Guided by director Muriel Maffre, he plods slowly down a ramp that's meant to represent a long road, lugging a bag full of his personal effects: a medal, a musty photograph of his fiancé, a mirror caked in grime. This soldier-puppet isn't any more pliant or life-like than the Anne Frank marionette who starred in Berkeley Rep's 2010 play, Compulsion, but somehow he inspires more sympathy. His eyes seem downcast; his face is worn and lined. And his voice, ventriloquized by the wonderful L. Peter Callender, is as richly liquid as an opera tenor's.
That alone makes this Soldier's Tale more engrossing than it might have been, had the principal actor been human. It was Maffre's idea to render the play that way. Formerly a prima ballerina with the San Francisco Ballet, Maffre only recently forayed into theater. She began developing the idea for Soldier's Tale — which is based on the 1918 ballet by C.F. Ramuz and Igor Stravinsky — in 2006, with a commission from Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival in Washington. Though Stravinsky wrote the original piece for seven musicians, three actors, and a dancer, Maffre thought it best to condense the roles, perhaps to underscore the Faustian theme — a puppet, after all, is by definition manipulated by forces beyond its control. Aurora's artistic director Tom Ross easily cottoned to the idea when Maffre pitched it in 2007. After one workshop, he decided to trim the cast even more by combining the narrator and soldier's voice into one part. That decision might have been purely practical, since Aurora has a relatively small stage and a large ensemble would have been way too cumbersome. Yet it also makes the production seem more elegant and clean.
All great stories work in threes, after all. In this case, the triangle sets Callender opposite Joan Mankin, who plays a slithery devil. The third player, Maffre, is more an idea than a bona fide character. In her role as the ill princess whose hand the soldier fights to attain, she comes to represent a space of innocence and calm, however fleeting. Maffre introduces the character in a solo dance number that shows her emerging from near-death to do a pas de deux with a puppet. It's exquisite: The former ballerina is beanpole-thin and genteel, with long, rubbery limbs and well-defined bones. She flops about the stage like someone buffeted by external hands, and yet her movements are also careful and precise. The music, provided by the Earplay ensemble (under the direction of pianist Mary Chun) is taut and dissonant and foreboding, as though to underpin each life-affirming movement with an element of doom.
Thus, the play is part ballet, part puppet theater, part chamber music — given that four musicians sit prominently onstage — and part Russian folktale. The story behind it is simple: A soldier returning from war gets waylaid by a strange peddler, who offers him a book that tells the future in exchange for the soldier's violin. Out of curiosity, or complacency, the soldier abides, setting off a chain of events that will ultimately lead him to lose his family and become a lonely, successful businessman. Maybe it was just a timely coincidence that the book in question offered stock market tips.
As our soldier transitions from civilian to merchant, and eventually joins the rarefied ranks of the One Percent (which, in early-twentieth-century Russia, meant he wore bowler hats and smoked cigars), he becomes perpetually more miserable. It's at his most downtrodden moments that the devil reappears, usually in the guise of a beggar. Mankin, who worked in San Francisco Mime Troupe and Pickle Family Circus, takes the form of a Commedia dell'arte villain, to make her devil seem both more puppet-like and more folkloric. Her puffy harlequin costume and green facepaint only enhance the character's sinister aspect, while her resonant cackle serves as a punctuation mark of sorts.
Donald Pippin of San Francisco company Pocket Opera wrote the script for this production, basically an English translation of the original libretto by C.F. Ramuz with a few lines altered for artistic purposes. The characters speak in rhymed verse, peppering their lines with memorable aphorisms (e.g., What good is butter on the bread/If the appetite itself is dead?) and sharp homilies that make the play seem extremely Russian, but also relevant to our current class war. To that end, Callender has a few lovely lines that illustrate the soldier's growing disenchantment as he advances from merchant to money lender to tycoon.
Sound familiar? The adage that "money can't buy you love" may seem old and shopworn, but it probably rang true for Ramuz and Stravinsky — and it takes on new meaning in light of our current class war. In that sense, at least, Aurora couldn't have picked a better time to stage this play.